Students gathered for Teach In on hill in front of Cottage Row.

After the Kent State shootings in May 1970, NMH hosted a “teach-in” on campus.

A Moment Like No Other

Reflecting on Northfield, Mount Hermon, and a troubled nation.

By Jerry Fraser

Jerry Fraser

Jerry Fraser in 1970

Just like that, things changed.

Back on March 8, several of us from Mount Hermon’s Class of 1970 were emailing about kicking off our 50th reunion in June with a round of golf. At the time, the COVID-19 wasn’t new, but in the United States, it was mostly confined to Washington state, and the dark clouds of an inadequate American response were still gathering.

Eight days later, NMH closed the campus and announced it was shifting to remote learning to protect students and faculty from the virus. The fate of Reunion Weekend, if not yet official, was clear. Golf would be scratched.

Things changed again on May 25, when a cop in Minneapolis put his knee on George Floyd’s neck for eight-plus minutes. It may be that in the wake of Floyd’s death, a country that was never quite sure of itself when it came to race decided it is time to figure it out.

Both of those developments provide context for my classmates’ years at Northfield and Mount Hermon 50 years ago, when change and instability were constant. Nonwhite students may have felt adrift in a sea of white teenagers on the rural New England campuses, but the schools supported a Black student union and other efforts to counter isolation, and added a course in Afro-American history. Vietnam, assassinations, riots, and the slaying of four Kent State students by the National Guard took their toll as well, but between our youthful optimism and the tone set by the school, we emerged with full hearts and few scars.

No doubt there was another America out there. Northfield and Mount Hermon insulated us from that America, but they never hid it. 

But when we arrived on campus, most of us had never been away from home or shared a room with someone we didn’t know. We carried six classes a day, plus speed-reading. Athletics were required, regardless of ability, after which we showered and went to 5 o’clock class. Meals at West Hall, where we sat as assigned and conducted ourselves as mannerly young men, took place in the presence of upper-class “table heads” or table “profs.” We were served by fellow students who delivered food on trays some of them could barely lift. 

Sacred Concert 1970

Students wore black armbands to Sacred Concert after the Kent State shootings.

Our presence in assigned seats was also required at chapel, which convened four times a week, including Sundays. If we were not doing our workjob or playing sports, we wore ties. Everyone, it seemed, was reading Beneath the Wheel, Hermann Hesse’s 1906 novel about a gifted student who feels pressured to excel at boarding school.

Mount Hermon did not yet share classes with the Northfield School for Girls, but on Saturdays, students were bused to chaperoned events — athletic in the afternoon, social in the evening. Blind dates were common, so I tried one. She shot me down two days later in a short letter (the sole means of communication between the schools) and I got out of the game.

It was just as well. If there was one thing I didn’t need, it was the distraction of young love. My final average freshman year was 60.023. I dropped German but couldn’t save Algebra. Biology was slightly better, thanks to the parts about reproduction. I passed Judson Stent’s Bible course with a 60, realizing too late that it was a revelation of its own. One subject that lofted me out of the 50s was English, in which I rallied for a come-from-behind C-minus after kicking off the year with a –185 on my first essay, thanks to deductions for errors in syntax. 

My academic high-water mark was a history class that offered us well-nourished students a more fulsome view of our country’s social landscape. We read The Other America, a groundbreaking book on poverty in the United States, setting the stage for our years at Mount Hermon and Northfield. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy were gunned down during our sophomore year. On the cusp of junior year, confrontations between police and protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago left a nation aghast and led to the election of Richard Nixon as president. In the spring of our senior year, National Guardsmen shot 13 student protesters at Kent State University in Ohio, four of whom died. Vietnam was a bloody river that ran throughout our time on campus.

No doubt there was another America out there. Northfield and Mount Hermon insulated us from that America, but they never hid it. 

Indeed, during the summer following my junior year, the school sponsored a day camp for children at Riverview, a federally funded housing project in Springfield, Massachusetts. A handful of students worked at the camp as counselors and stayed with local families. Riverview embodied the other America: single mothers, welfare-dependent families, an absence of working-age men, lots of crime. Our little campers seemed happy enough, but they grew up quickly. The 18-year-old whose family I stayed with slept with a meat cleaver under his pillow. His mother, who was obliged to feed me in return for the $20 I paid her every week, packed government-surplus Spam in my lunch every day and fed it to me again at night. Her son never came home for supper, and often not at all. The meat cleaver was there if I needed it.

The summer’s experience left us unsettled, but we saw that the other America wasn’t just a place in a book. We saw with our own eyes how poverty afflicts the spirit. 

Baseball great Jackie Robinson at Mount Hermon in 1970.

Senior year was a time of transition for us and also for our school. Northfield and Mount Hermon’s commitment to a unified future had become clear. Several courses became coed, with students bused back and forth between campuses. Our school paper, The Hermonite, became The Bridge. In the spring, seniors from both campuses got together in the Cloud, a smokers’ redoubt, in an angry and youthfully unchanneled reaction to the Kent State shootings on May 4. (It was, for sure, a chance to see the girls.)

A few weeks later, Jackie Robinson, who a generation before had become the first Black player in major league baseball, spoke at Mount Hermon’s commencement. His audience was mostly young white males, but it was dappled with more Black and brown and other hues than he would have found at most New England prep schools, which is probably how his son, David, had come to be our classmate. “We have understanding from young men who have come from varying backgrounds,” said Robinson, praising the school, “and with youngsters from racial backgrounds whose views have been altered by what they have learned from their association.”

That soft-spoken man, that quintessentially American hero who touched the entire world through a life of grace, had anguish in his gentle voice. He expressed optimism on our behalf, but not so much about the world we inhabited. “We have become so polarized that we are virtually at each other’s throats,” he said. “As I look at our troubled nation, we are in for much greater strife before it gets better.”

It’s hard to know what Jackie Robinson would say to students now. There would certainly be weariness in his voice, but I think, perhaps wishfully, that the answer is, “This too shall pass.”

If Jackie only knew. Fifty years later, we are still bearing the ancient crosses, as well as some new ones: a shifting economic order, climate change, and of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet populist world leaders today seem to believe they have more to gain from discord than from harmony. It’s hard to know what Jackie Robinson would say to students now. There would certainly be weariness in his voice, but I think, perhaps wishfully, that the answer is, “This too shall pass.”

Jerry Fraser fished commercially in Maine until his mid-30s, then embarked on a career in journalism, following in the footsteps of his father and great-grandfather. Jackie Robinson’s commencement address can be found at nmh1970.com/jackie-robinsons-commencement-address/.

And so we soldier on, grateful for the time we were given on Northfield and Mount Hermon’s green and pleasant hillsides. Here we opened our eyes and were inspired to learn and to live and to make those two actions one within ourselves. And if we haven’t saved the world, I believe in my heart that we have tried to make it a more habitable place for those around us, as Jackie Robinson no doubt hoped we would.


Bobbie Herron

Martha “Bobbie” Herron in 1970

Making Sense of Insanity

By Martha “Bobbie” Herron ’70

Being a teenager is crazy enough, but being a teenager living a monastic life in a remote location during the late 1960s was surreal. The Class of 1970 was the last Northfield class before the merger with Mount Hermon, so 100 percent of our lives was spent on the Northfield campus, which now feels more like Brigadoon than alma mater.

When Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were killed, there were no in loco parentis adults to help us make sense of the insanity. Moore Cottage’s buxom old house mother and strict “dummy” [workjob] instructor were not trained to do trauma counseling. They treated us like kids who needed to mind our studies and little else.

Monday, May 4, 1970: I was sunbathing with a few other seniors, wallowing in the freedom of no final exams and the knowledge that our places were firmly secured in the colleges of our choice. The music on my transistor radio was interrupted just after 12:24 pm. Four students had been shot and killed at Kent State University. Nine more were injured.

We wore black armbands to Sacred Concert the following Sunday. Many parents and alumni in the audience were stunned, including the mother of my best friend. “The fathers and uncles among us had never been assigned a draft number,” she explained later. “They had never been told that if their college grade-point average dropped, they would be shipped halfway around the world to be shot at.” She told us, “Because of Kent State, you realized that even a 4.0 GPA wouldn’t save you. You left boarding school and entered a maelstrom of insanity, and at the same time were asked to invest in a future that was far from clear. Never forget: You grew up in a moment like no other.”


Cornell Hills

Cornell Hills in 1970

Across the River

By Cornell Hills ’70

Like most Hermon guys, my hormones raged, and a popular pastime was imagining how to get to Northfield to be with a girl without getting caught. I had my share of unchaperoned situations, but I will never forget the time I actually made it to the Northfield campus — in broad daylight.

It was after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and the entire country seemed to be burning. A couple of older students came up with the idea to stage a protest together with our sisters at Northfield, to show our joint concern about King’s death as well as the plight of Black people overall in America — and in our little part of the world at NMH.

We were blessed to have three individuals with power standing behind us: headmaster Art Kiendl; history teacher Gerald Davis, the school’s only Black faculty member; and Rev. Glynis Jones, the chaplain. They made sure we weren’t punished for leaving campus and walking the five miles to Northfield. 

The weirdest thing for this young man from the south side of Chicago was when we walked quietly down the street in Northfield and white people came running out of their homes to gawk at us. We knew that many of them had only seen Black people on TV. With a dozen of us together right outside their doors, they probably thought a riot was going to break out. I had never felt like a spectacle before that day.

 

Photos: Courtesy of NMH Archives